The Kings left the beaten path when they chose Anze Kopitar early in the 2005 NHL entry draft, veering off the Trans-Canada highway to select a center who was born in Slovenia, had moved to Sweden to find better competition, and was blessed with instincts that transcend the boundaries of country or language.
“We’re looking at a potential home run to have Anze Kopitar fall to 11,” then-general manager Dave Taylor said that day. “He’s a big kid with unbelievable hands and skill.”
Team executives always say things like that. In Kopitar’s case, it proved to be true.
The son of a hockey coach who guided him through his first turns on a backyard rink, Kopitar was too busy pursuing his NHL dream to watch many games while growing up. After the Kings claimed him, he said all he knew about Los Angeles was “from TV. I know there’s some really big stars living there.”
He soon became one of those stars, an exemplary player who led the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships and twice won the Selke trophy, annually awarded to the NHL’s best defensive forward. On Wednesday he reaffirmed his place among the most accomplished athletes who have played in Los Angeles — and in the league — by scoring his 1,000th point, the 91st player in NHL history to reach that level.
It was fitting that he earned the milestone point on an assist, winning a defensive zone faceoff that made it possible for Sean Walker to score an empty-net goal late in the third period of the Kings’ 4-2 victory over the Coyotes at Glendale, Ariz. Kopitar smiled and hugged his teammates, waving to Kings fans who had made the trek to witness the moment.
“It’s surreal. It hasn’t set in,” he said. “Just being a part of this club, it’s very special to me. It brings me back. A very thankful feeling right now. Obviously very excited and very happy and all of the above, but very thankful and humble to be in this position.”
Kopitar, 33, would have scored many more than 346 goals in his career if he hadn’t been so selfless in setting up teammates and sacrificed scoring chances to excel at the crucial defensive aspects of the game. He also might have surpassed 1,000 points sooner if the Kings had regularly given him wingers whose skills came close to his, instead of frequently saddling him with players who needed an impossibly tall ladder to play up to his level.
Dustin Brown, his frequent linemate and predecessor as the Kings’ captain, jokingly acknowledged as much last week. “If anything, he’d probably be there already if he wasn’t playing with me for 15 years,” Brown said, smiling.
Through seasons when the team was on the rise, when the Kings won their two titles and when they fell into a decline they haven’t yet escaped, Kopitar has been their beacon. He has led them in scoring in 12 seasons, including nine straight starting with 2007-08. He’s likely to lead them in scoring again in this abbreviated season: His assist Wednesday gave him 50 points in 51 games, with five regular-season games left.
“It’s incredible for him. We’re along for the ride,” coach Todd McLellan said. “I’m certainly proud of him but I’m honored to be able to coach him. It’s a pleasure to have that type of person around our locker room on a daily basis. He makes everybody better, including the coaching staff, and his passion and his energy for the game is contagious.”
Kopitar didn’t have to be coaxed into being a responsible defensive player. He always knew where to be or where to go, knowledge he used to become one of the NHL’s most complete players. His mastery carried over to the international level, where he played for his homeland at the world championships. As the first Slovenian to play in the NHL, he helped Slovenia record its first-ever Olympic win, a 3-1 victory over Slovakia at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and he led them to the quarterfinals.
In the 2016 World Cup of Hockey he was the captain of Team Europe, a grouping of players whose countries weren’t represented by a national team. Kopitar’s squad made a surprising run to the final before losing to powerful Canada.
The league changed around him and the Kings’ roster has undergone a massive overhaul, but Kopitar’s excellence never wavered. He is among the elite players in the best hockey league in the world, a feat he didn’t dare to dream would be possible all those years ago when the Kings drafted him.
“Being a kid, you always have a dream, right, to make it to the NHL and to win the Stanley Cup and to have a long career and successful career,” he said. “For me it was almost a little bit naïve to think that, but I guess now, 15 years later, being in this position, again, it’s exciting. Very humble. Just thankful comes to mind.”
Kopitar became the fourth player to reach 1,000 points while playing for the Kings, joining Marcel Dionne, Luc Robitaille and Taylor. “Can’t wait to see him get the next 500,” McLellan said.
That’s a lot to expect, but Kopitar’s game should hold up well when age becomes a factor. He has found another way to be influential, happily taking on the role of mentor to the next generation. McLellan mentioned seeing Kopitar walk to the rink with rookie center Quinton Byfield and hearing him offer Byfield advice as they sat together on the bench. It was a gift from the hockey gods, then, that Byfield earned his first NHL point Wednesday. “Different moments for each of them. Equally exciting, I think,” McLellan said.
For Kopitar, the moment was almost too big to take in. “It’s very exciting right now. My heart is still racing,” he said. “So I think it’s going to set in a little bit more in the next few days, weeks.”
Going off the beaten path was the right choice for the Kings and for Kopitar, uniting them on a successful journey that hasn’t ended yet.